today in black history

April 22, 2024

Brilliant jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus was born on this date in 1922.

Our Unfinished Business

POSTED: July 04, 2013, 7:30 am

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As the nation pauses to celebrate Independence Day, the paradox between the promise of freedom this day marks and its tortured path to it is quite clear. It is quite telling that the first person to die as the American Revolution took flight was Black and that the group still struggling to enjoy the fruits of freedom is African-Americans. In many ways, the words of Frederick Douglass questioning why slaves should celebrate this day are applicable in the 21st century to a people whose labor was abused and whose contributions have been purposely diminished while their rights have been denied.

Independence Day is framed by contradiction. A country whose founders espoused the virtues of freedom and liberty but who owned slaves who toiled under conditions not fit for beasts, and its bloodiest war fought to release it from the grip of human bondage. A day that reminds us that even after the Civil War a large swath of the nation refused to cede ground and employed violence and law as tactics to deny its Black brethren their rights. It was an independence defined by “separate but equal” and a Constitution that assigned 3/5ths personage to the very people who were doing 100% of the labor. And just at the point where some of us could see the “promised land,” a nation that seems intent on revisiting its past and holding our limited “progress” against us.

This day arrives against the backdrop of the nation’s Supreme Court, the supposed epicenter of justice in our land, denying the existence of racism in America and shamefully gutting a landmark law that served to protect voting rights for nearly five decades. The same body that is sworn to uphold the Constitution, in an act of extreme spite, cast to the wind the truth that the hallowed document never apportioned rights to African-Americans it purportedly granted to all Americans. Worse, the nakedness of political retribution was evident in the Court’s opinion as decades of hate spewed from the bench from conservative justices, including an African-American, who seem intent on restoring white supremacy with their assault on voting rights, affirmative action and the right to legal redress against discriminatory practices in the workplace.

The signs of our nation’s unfinished business are evident far beyond the marble columns of the Supreme Court building. We are still haunted by language that defined the degradation of African-Americans; spoken so casually in the 21st century that even generations of young Blacks fail to understand the blood that is associated with the word nigger. That just 150 years from the war for the soul of America we are still niggerized (yes, a word of my own imagination) by some whites, and enjoined by the ignorance of some Blacks, paints a clear picture of a people whose status is still defined by abuse. It is the casualness of Paula Deen’s racially tinged vocabulary that highlights the degree to which our humanness is dismissed.

Meanwhile, in a courtroom in a state popularized by sunshine but overcast with injustice, the value of the lives of young Black men is being defined by the pursuit of justice for one dead young Black man – Trayvon Martin. If the jury in the trial of George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon, establishes that killing innocent Black boys is the legal equivalent of ‘standing your ground’ we will have returned to the day of legally permissible lynching. Our neighborhoods will be soiled with the blood stains of strange fruit and rather than lynch mobs watching the spectacle, the mockery of kangaroo court trials will be played as entertainment before television audiences, as is occurring at the moment in the Zimmerman trial.

For African-Americans, this day more so than any other, tests our patience and our patience is running thin. It is a day in which we try to wear the mask of patriotism while fighting back the tears of injustice. It is a day in which we are on a slow burn, thinking about the lives sacrificed and the futures robbed by the cruelty of American racism, the honor in which we have served and the pain that has been inflicted upon us despite our service, and the tremendous energy that has been expended in keeping us down when lifting us up will elevate this nation. It is a day in which Douglass’ words “Go search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival” sadly echo in every valley and reverberate against every mountain from sea to shining sea.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

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